This crunch challenge review is part of our Good Sport series. We’re up for any challenge (physical or mental) and this is where we prove it – and then convince you to do the same! Daily burpees anyone?
I decided to do an ab challenge because I needed to do something! I’ve got a shoulder injury, which isn’t just affecting what I can do during my workouts, but also my confidence. I’m a “yes person” so my ego isn’t used to my body saying no. I’m feeling the atrophy, and it’s like a punch in the gut. To not lose my mind and my fitness levels completely, I’ve swapped my bootcamp classes with stretching, ballet lessons, Pilates, and, of course, this challenge of 50 crunches a day for 30 days.
How to do a 30-day abs challenge
It’s pretty much whatever you want it to be. You can do a progressive challenge, starting with one crunch working your way up to 30, by adding a crunch (or multiple crunches) a day. Or you can pick a number of crunches you want to do a day. I chose 50, as I am reasonably active (except for this damn shoulder thing). Plus, I’d done the 50 burpees a day challenge.
Crunches vs belly fat – and other reasons trainers don’t love crunches
Remember when sit-ups were the bad child and crunches seemed to be the good one? We all lauded supporting the back when working our abdominals. Interestingly, when I reached out for expert opinions on doing crunches every day for a month, it did raise some eyebrows.
“Crunches on a daily basis would mean working on your abs daily,” says trainer and fitness model Trudie Germain, owner of BodyEnvy. “Just like any other muscle group, abs should not be worked daily. I would say target your abs every other day.” And, if your goal is a six-pack, she adds: “Crunches won’t help with the belly fat.” Instead, focus on weight loss first and then do crunches to make the abdominal muscles more visible. Germain also adds to give yourself at least 24 hours between ab workouts for recovery.
Jamie Bell of YOGAthletix says the challenge can be limiting. Plus, a healthy lifestyle is about variety, and that includes exercise. “Crunches, when performed correctly, are a great way to strengthen the rectus abdominis, the external obliques and the iliopsoas – three core muscles,” says Bell. “However, the core is made up of so much more than these three muscles.” She prefers a “balanced core routine” that includes crunches, oblique twists, leg raises, side plank and back extensions.
Also, the crunch challenge shouldn’t be your workout – full stop. “It’s a good idea to do exercises that complement abdominal crunches – a trunk flexor movement to counteract the crunch movement,” says Chris Leblanc, fitness manager and level-6 personal trainer at Stittsville Corners GoodLife. “A simple but effective exercise would be an alternating superman.” That’s when you lie face down on the floor with arms extended up diagonally and legs straight and hip-distance apart, raising one leg and the opposite arm as you alternate lifts.
To be honest, I recognized that crunches weren’t going to cut it before starting Day 1. It felt a bit basic to do on its own. So instead I would use it as a workout finisher or as a mini workout to break up my WFH routine.
The proper way to do a crunch
Lie on your back, with the soles of your feet on the floor, knees bent and hip distance apart, instructs Leblanc. “Your tongue should be on the roof of your mouth where it naturally goes when you swallow. This helps to stabilize the neck.” Now, curl your back off the floor inch by inch, until the rectus abdominal (the centre muscles) is completely contracted, he adds. This end position should have your shoulder blades completely off the floor, while your lower back is still in contact with the mat.
Germain recommends placing your arms across your chest, not your head. “You may pull on your head on the way up. And, make sure the distance between your chin and your chest is the size of your fist. Squeeze your abs the entire time, exhale up then inhale down. Breathing is important.”
The best time of day to do crunches
When I first started my 30-day, 50-crunch challenge, I eagerly did them when I first woke up. Then there were days I would do them as a warm-up or a finisher for my workouts. And there were also days, when I got into bed, about to crack open a book, when I suddenly remembered to do the 50 crunches. Here’s the interesting part: It helped me fall asleep!
You know those meditation apps that walk you through relaxing the muscles? That is kind of what doing 50 crunches in bed did for me. I would completely let go of the last crunch with my entire body.
“Gentle and concentrated physical activity can be very soothing for the body before bed,” says Bell, when I reveal the surprising upside of doing bedtime crunches. “Energy output helps to improve sleep quality and the mental satisfaction of bettering your health will put you at ease as you make your way to bed.”
Another benefit of doing crunches before sleeping? Controlled breathing, says Leblanc.
It’s called “work-in movement,” he says of corrective holistic exercise kinesiology. “‘Working in’ involves movements that cultivate energy or chi, they produce a parasympathetic reaction, which counters the fight or flight sympathetic system, and they help build and repair the body, energize, and calm or relax the mind. This effect would be similar to Yin Yoga, Tai Chi or Chi Gong. If you’re looking for that result with your crunches, the trick would be to move slowly with controlled breathing, and choose a repetition range that doesn’t produce an elevated heart rate.”
Common mistakes with crunches
To check in on my form, I ask Leblanc what I should watch out for. He gave me this list of four common mistakes.
- Anchoring feet
Placing your feet under a fixed or heavy piece of equipment is not ideal. This can lead you to use your legs – or more specifically your hip flexors — instead of your abdominals. Guilty!
- Hand placement
Many people place their hands at the back of their head, which leads to pushing the head forward and can strain the neck.
- Sitting up
You want to ensure your lower back stays in contact with the floor. Many people come up onto the glutes, which again activates the hip flexors and allows the abdominals to turn off.
- Breathing too fast or too slow
You should exhale during the contraction (head and shoulders lifting, tightening of the abs) and inhaling during extension (head and shoulders lowering, lengthening of the abs), just as Germain indicated above. Ensure the speed you move allows you to breathe properly. Many people do this too quickly and they aren’t in sync with their breath or take breaths that are quick or shallow.
Does the ab challenge work?
Like Germain says, my abs are hidden under sweatshirts and body fat. But I’m good with that. As someone with an injury, just moving is a relief!
Day 1, I felt the burn about 10 crunches in, and had to briefly pause at the 25th one. But as the days went on, I noticed that the “burn” that caused me to break shifted down the count day by day. By the end of the second week, I went straight through from 1 to 50.
And that brings me to my next point…
How to advance crunches
“As you get stronger and develop more endurance, it will take longer to ‘feel the burn,’” says Bell. “In order to continue to see improvements, you should advance. You could advance with a higher rep count to continue to challenge your endurance or increase the level of intensity by performing a different variation of crunches or adding in weights.”
If you’re a beginner, start off with your arms extended, as if you’re reaching for your feet as you crunch forward, says Leblanc. “This ensures you are lifting the least amount of weight and allows you to focus on form. From there, progress to having your arms crossed, then fingertips on your temples, and finally having your arms extended above. Each progression alters the weight distribution or lever length, making it more difficult.”
To advance it even more, do this progression but on a stability ball, which “provides a greater range of motion as your body can go past the horizontal plane and utilize the full length of the muscle.”
What did I learn from my ab challenge?
If I want to strengthen a particular muscle or body part, I can add mini-workouts to my day. It doesn’t have to be long – 20 minutes or even just a few can be enough. Since my days at home have me walking less, I’ve started doing squats, inspired by this fitness challenge.
What else did I learn from my challenge of 50 crunches a day for 30 days? I may not have a visible six-pack (I know they’re in there!), but I discovered a new bedtime routine.